Heather Kaniuk is living a very sweet life in London. But girl, she’s worked hard for it.
I was put in touch with Heather via a friend who is friends with her sister (New Zealand is always small). They suspected Heather would be a perfect fit for The Residents! And I couldn’t agree more. Kiwi Heather turned her passion for pastry into a career which has taken her all over the world. She is an award winning chef, pastry chef and consultant. But first and foremost, she calls New Zealand home.
In a heavily male dominated career path, Heather has done the work to get to where she is today, running her own chef consultancy with her partner Graham Hornigold. She has previously undertaken the role of Executive Pastry Chef in two of the most prestigious 5-star hotels in London- Shangri-La At the Shard and the uber-luxurious Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park. Prior to this she oversaw production for the Hakkasan Groups’ Michelin-starred dimsum tea-house, Yauatcha, and its retail patisserie outlets.
Heather has won awards locally and globally, including winning Best Contemporary Afternoon Tea in the London Afternoon Tea Awards (2016). She has been featured in Cap’Recette Style (2018), La Journal du Patissier (2017), The Staff Canteen and numerous online sites.
Over Yeastie Boy beer and cider in Borough Market, Heather and I sat down together and talked about the high-pressure world of kitchens, pastry and finding your feet in London.
Lucy Revill: The first question I ask everybody is: where were you born?
Heather Kaniuk: I was born in Waitakere, West Auckland, and grew up there. It was a great place to grow up, surrounded by native bush, beautiful beaches and plenty of space to play.
LR: What did your parents do?
HK: Both my parents were teachers, though they’ve now retired. My mum taught mathematics; my dad taught a variety of things from science to maths to computing, religion – he’s a bit of an all-rounder. That sort of shaped my upbringing in terms of an academic drive.
LR: So like, growing up, did you always have an interest in food? Were you a ‘foodie’ family?
HK: There are a lot of women in our extended family. My mum’s side is a big Catholic family; she has four sisters. So there was always a lot of baking on the weekends, and food being shared at family gatherings. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a cake decorator, so when I was young I used to sit at her kitchen table and play around with the icing – not very well, but making flowers and what-not. I think my interest in patisserie came largely from her, my Mum and my aunts -my Mum’s a really good cook and baker. My Dad was always quite interested in food as well, in a more savoury sense. It’s quite a traditional family where we cooked at home every day; we sat around the dinner table for each meal. I guess my understanding of food and hospitality comes from that, where the kitchen is the heart of the home.
Additionally, I was always quite sporty as a kid, and I think because of that I was always quite hungry, and it got to the point where my Mum was like, ‘You know what? You need to cook for yourself because you always want to eat.’ So from then I started to cook and became a bit more interested in food. When I was quite young, eight or nine, I was cooking cakes, biscuits, sweets and all sorts of little things. My passion grew from there.
LR: Which school did you go to?
HK: I went to Lynfield College, where my mum was teaching. Before that, my sister was at a Catholic school and I remember quite vividly not wanting to go to an all-female school. I sort of put my foot down and said, ‘I really, really don’t want to go there.’
So we all ended up at Lynfield, and I was in her class for Maths for quite a few years- kids can be so mean though so it was kind of a tough experience for a while, but my Mum is a great teacher so I’m thankful for that!
LR: What were you like at school? What were your interests and the things you did? You said you’re sporty?
HK: I played netball, cricket, swimming, water polo, surf lifesaving, athletics, snowboarding – all sorts of bits and pieces. I was quite academic at the same time, probably because of my parents’ professions and work ethic. I would say I was more of an all-rounder, but definitely my family was quite focused on academic subjects.
LR: When you left school, did you know what you wanted to do?
HK: I did: I wanted to be a chef. I think I was about 14 or 15 when I realised I wanted to be a chef, and my parents were convinced that I needed to finish my school education. When I got to seventh form, I was offered an apprenticeship at the five star Stamford Plaza hotel, and that was an opportunity that I didn’t want to give up. That led to a few arguments in the family about not leaving school early. For me it was, ‘Well, this is what I want to do,’ – I am quite stubborn! So I left school midway through my final year, though I continued to study and on the side and completed my exams at the end of the year, whilst working fulltime. So I started my apprenticeship there, but halfway through I was given an opportunity to complete it with Peter Gordon.
LR: This is so weird because we’ve met a Kiwi blogger in London who does Peter Gordon’s social media. We were with her last night.
HK: Really? That’s so cool.
LR: It is such a small world. How was your experience working with Peter Gordon?
HK: It was incredible. He’s a fantastic person both personally and professionally, and has always been a supportive mentor. I completed my training at Dine by Peter Gordon in Auckland, and later won the NZ-UK Link Foundation Scholarship programme which allowed me to come to London.
LR: Wow, how did you get that?
HK: The Foundation promotes business and educational ties between the two countries, and offers young people opportunities to further their careers through cross exposure trips. I took part in a series of cooking competitions, and was the overall winner in my year. The scholarship allowed me to visit the UK for two months all expenses paid, and gave me the opportunity to stage in 6 incredible kitchens over that period- exposing me to Michelin starred chefs and a level of cookery that, at the time, was not present in NZ.
From this I was offered jobs in all the restaurants I’d staged at, and ended up taking a position with the Gordon Ramsay Group. I worked in one of his flagship restaurants, Maze, which was incredibly, incredibly difficult – a very tough kitchen.
LR: Are the rumours true?
HK: Yeah, absolutely. It was known to be one of the harshest kitchens in London at time, but I was exposed to so many new foods, techniques and ingredients. I stuck it out for a year and then I was like, ‘That’s enough’. It was wreaking havoc on my physical and mental health, not to mention my relationship. At that point in my career I was nearly ready to leave cooking because of how brutal that kitchen was.
I met with Peter Gordon, who offered me a position with him at The Providores and Tapa room. We had such a brilliant team there and such a family environment- it was the complete opposite really, and helped restore my passion for the industry.
LR: Were the hours at Maze really stressful and long as well?
HK: Yeah, I mean, you work a minimum of 16-18 hours a day. You’re in the kitchen at six or seven; you finish maybe one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning. Most of the time, it was 6 days a week because there were always staff shortages. There were nights where people slept on the dry store floor, or people would pass out mid service.
LR: That’s insane.
HK: I’ll continue this after the interview!
LR: We’ll keep with the ‘PG’ version.
HK: Yeah, it was long hours. It was very, very stressful. It was a very demanding environment. At the same time, it taught me a lot about being a chef, but I was just completely exhausted and burnt-out. Peter gave me that little helping hand back into the industry, and just gave me that time to heal myself. I worked for him for another year in his London restaurant, which you should go check out if you’re around for a while. It’s really, really good.
LR: So you went back to his restaurant, and at that stage were you kind of specialising in pastry?
HK: Originally I trained to be a chef, as I loved cooking. However, many kitchens at the time were quite brutal- male-dominated; testosterone-fuelled, a lot of swearing and alcohol and drugs. But also high energy, and an adrenalin rush. I loved that for a while. I could fit in because I wasn’t really a girly girl anyway, and I learnt to tough it out. But as time went on I realised: ‘Actually, I don’t really enjoy this as much, and why do I need to be so aggressive to get my job done? Why do people need to scream and shout to get the best out of people? Surely there’s a better way.’
I sort of found that way in patisserie, where it’s a little more chemistry-based -there’s more of a thought process going into it. You have to know why something works, why certain chemical reactions will work, how one ingredient influences another. That side of things appealed to me – it’s a lot more precise. You know, everything has to be measured in grams, not, ‘throw a bit of this, and throw a bit of this, and maybe it works out; maybe it doesn’t.’ Patisserie is quite specific. I just found the general environment – yes, there are a lot more females in patisserie – but it’s just a more calm, collective, peaceful environment.
LR: How did you get into it?
HK: I’d always been doing a bit of both. Even in my jobs where my role was to be in the kitchen, I always gravitated towards pastry and did a bit on that side as well. A lot of kitchens, particularly in New Zealand, traditionally didn’t have a differentiated pastry section back then. You would do the larder section and a bit of pastry at the same time. In London there was more emphasis on pastry as a separate domain and career path. So early on in my career I did a bit of both, and then when I came to London I realised there were restaurants where you could be solely a pastry chef! In those days it was a revelation- whereas nowadays it is of course the norm.
LR: What are some of the places you’ve worked, patisserie-wise?
HK: I worked at Yauatcha, which is a Michelin-starred dim sum teahouse owned by the Hakkasan Group, of which there are two restaurants as well as a retail patisserie. From there I went on to become the Head Pastry chef at the prestigious Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hyde Park, and later held the role of Executive Pastry Chef at Shangri-La in the Shard, both five star hotels.
LR: That’s amazing. Do you feel quite proud of where you’ve worked up to? Do you sometimes pinch yourself?
HK: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s a long way to have come for a little girl from New Zealand. I didn’t really think of this being the end-game, but it is pretty amazing. There’s a lot of opportunities in London, and I think if you’re prepared to work hard for it in London, you can really make a name for yourself.
LR: What’s one of the most challenging things about working in a patisserie kitchen, and what’s one of the most fantastic things that you take away from your job?
HK: The most fantastic thing, I think, is two-part. Firstly, you want to create something for your customers that really makes them smile and think, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ -pastry has the ability to do that because everyone loves to have a little bit of sweet – whether they’ll admit it or not! Dessert is usually the last course of a meal, so you want to create something memorable.
And then secondly, for me: my role now is teaching, training, and developing. Seeing other chefs grow, for me, is probably more important than cooking itself because you’re giving back to the industry; you’re giving back to the people who admire you and look up to you. You want them to be where you are in ten years’ time. So to have the ability to give something back to the industry, I think, gives me more satisfaction than anything else.
LR: What’s the most challenging aspect of what you do, that you can share?
HK: That’s a good question. Generally, in hotels, the most challenging thing is organising all the different outlets. When you work in a restaurant, you’ve just got one restaurant, one menu. In hotels you’re looking at five, six, seven, eight different outlets. You’ve got restaurants, bars, pastry shops, afternoon tea, in-room dining amenities, banqueting – all these different outlets and different menus that you have to keep track off, so it’s more of an organisational management role, which I really enjoyed.
LR: How have you made London your home, being a Kiwi girl?
HK: My dream is to move back to New Zealand. I don’t want to live here forever; however, my partner is a Londoner and he has two children, so it’s a case of having to stay here for the moment. I bought my house out in Kent, so I’m living just outside the city. I think, having those roots, it makes me feel a little bit more at home here, but I miss New Zealand –badly.
LR: What do you miss about New Zealand?
HK: I really miss the mountains, the beaches, the outdoors – the fresh air, being able to go running, swimming, surfing, snowboarding and just the outdoor things that you don’t really get here. It’s not the same. You just don’t have that beautiful, green, pristine country to enjoy, that inspires you to go out there and get involved in it. Yeah, that’s what I find difficult: you can go running here, but you’re looking at grey buildings all the time. It’s not the same!
LR: Do you think no matter where you are, you’ll always be a resident of New Zealand at heart?
HK: Absolutely. Oh my god, I can’t wait to go home. My plan is to move home, and I would like to be able to bring my business home, start something small in New Zealand. It doesn’t need to be something on the scale of things here. It just needs to be something that allows me to live the lifestyle of a New Zealander. I think that’s more important for me.
LR: As a Kiwi, do you have a good relationship with Londoners? Do they regard you well?
HK: To be honest, most people don’t know that I’m a Kiwi anymore, and they just assume that I’m British unless I actually tell them that I’m a Kiwi! I guess my accent has changed over the years.
LR: What’s your favourite pastry to make for people at the moment?
HK: Right now I am making a lot of doughnuts actually! My partner and I have a number of our own projects coming up in London, namely our newest gourmet doughnut venture, Longboys, which will open in January 2019. So currently we are doing a huge amount of recipe testing and development, so our friends are eating a lot of doughnuts!
We also run our hospitality firm, Smart Patisserie, through which we consult on projects and restaurant openings around the world. So we tend to develop of lot of recipes based on the needs of our clients, whether it be restaurants, hotels, manufacturers etc.
LR: Are you designing menus for them?
HK: We offer a complete hospitality package- everything from kitchen design, menu development, training, recruitment, and ongoing support. We work globally, on projects around the world, which keeps us on our toes.
LR: Wow. So you’re going to Doha next week, is that right?
HK: Yes- currently we are working on quite a few projects in the GCC- Qatar, Saudi, Kuwait, UAE.
LR: What is the GCC?
HK: The Gulf Cooperation Council. There is a huge amount of investment currently in the region in terms of tourism and hospitality. However, as these are emerging markets, there is a lack of skilled labour, so a large part of our roles is not only developing menus but developing the skillset and knowledge of chefs in the region.
LR: And they fly you over there?
HK: Our clients fly us over there, usually for anything between 3-4 weeks, sometimes a couple of months. We implement systems, set up the kitchen, menus, hire the team if necessary, and train them in all aspects of the operation. We take the team through rigorous scenario training until they are capable of running the restaurant to our standards, and support the team through the opening period. Then either we have a chef in place to run the operation on a day to day basis, or we look at having a management contract, where we go out there every couple of months and make sure it’s running smoothly.
LR: If you had to choose a recipe or a pastry that you really have a soft spot for, what would it be?
HK: That’s a really hard one, because it totally depends on your mood. My partner is also an amazing pastry chef, he makes the best bread and butter pudding. Generally it’s the simple things that’s taste the best!